Inscape or Landscape: An Unfinished Business by Denise Leclerc

Inscape or Land­scape: An Unfin­ished Business

Denise Leclerc

(excerpt – full essay appears in Chron­i­cles of Form and Place: Works on Paper by Takao Tanabe)

A diver­si­fied graphic arts pro­duc­tion has accom­pa­nied Takao Tanabe’s quest through­out his career as a painter. He has cul­ti­vated a dis­tinct rela­tion­ship with paper, demon­strat­ing an inti­mate appre­ci­a­tion of its qual­i­ties which could have only been rein­forced by his famil­iar­iza­tion, while in Japan, with tra­di­tional East­ern tech­niques. This exhi­bi­tion of works on paper con­firms his mas­tery of a wide array of instru­ments and of appli­ca­tion tech­niques: water­colour, pas­tel, gouache, sumi-e, graphite, acrylic, felt pen, and pen­cil crayon. The works pre­sented fea­ture a vari­ety of sur­face vibra­tions, atmos­pheric hazes, vaporous sumi-e effects, som­bre moods, stud­ies of colour inter­play, and even rep­re­sen­ta­tions of pho­to­graphic precision.

In the early years of his artis­tic pro­duc­tion in Van­cou­ver, Tan­abe also worked as a designer and typog­ra­pher in the field of pri­vate press for the Klanak Press, as well as in col­lab­o­ra­tion on joint projects with the dynamic printer Robert Reid. At the begin­ning of the 1960s he also founded his own pub­lish­ing house in Van­cou­ver, the Peri­win­kle Press, an enter­prise with no aspi­ra­tions to make money but which dis­tin­guished itself for the excel­lence of its pub­li­ca­tions of poetry. For many years, Tan­abe actu­ally iden­ti­fied him­self on the let­ter­head as “painter & some­time printer.” The artist also worked on occa­sion with the art of engrav­ing in all its aspects, in par­tic­u­lar with wood­block, fol­low­ing his intro­duc­tion to the tech­nique by the mas­ter Noburu Sawai in 1981. In addi­tion, Takao Tan­abe has worked with paper in unusual and highly inge­nious ways in the com­po­si­tion of the mate­ri­als for the mural The Sea­sons (1966),1 a com­mis­sion, on the rec­om­men­da­tion of the archi­tect Hart Massey, cre­ated for the John Car­ling Build­ing which houses the fed­eral Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture located on the grounds of the Exper­i­men­tal Farm in Ottawa. The artist describes the mural as a gigan­tic paper col­lage in which fif­teen lay­ers of Japan­ese paper, solution-dyed with acrylic paint, stand out in relief against the sup­port­ing plywood.

Since he is of Japanese-Canadian descent, we tend to spon­ta­neously attribute a nat­ural affin­ity for the East to Tanabe’s work, a char­ac­ter­is­tic that crit­ics have empha­sized from the artist’s very first shows in their remarks on the del­i­cacy, finesse, and ele­gance of his brush­work. But the artist invites us, quite rightly, to pro­ceed more cir­cum­spectly. He men­tions first that he has been influ­enced more strongly by the sen­si­bil­i­ties of Euro­pean artists, them­selves influ­enced by Ori­en­tal styles,2 and then states directly in a recent speech3 “I am not Japan­ese,” pos­si­bly as a defi­ant response to the degrad­ing treat­ment suf­fered in his child­hood and ado­les­cence dur­ing the tar­nished cir­cum­stances of the era. Some­time later in 1959, Tan­abe did go to Japan in search of, among other things, an affir­ma­tion of his own iden­tity. He real­ized in the end that he did not really feel Japan­ese, a sure indi­ca­tion of the unsta­ble char­ac­ter of iden­tity dur­ing our era of migra­tion of every type. This state­ment may recall the sit­u­a­tion of the well-known Hait­ian writer, Dany Lafer­riere, liv­ing in Mon­tréal, whose recent novel is enti­tled I Am a Japan­ese Writer.4) In this story, the Hait­ian writer as the pro­tag­o­nist becomes a celebrity in Japan because of a mis­un­der­stand­ing, the author play­ing in such a way with the reader in order to oblige the lat­ter to set aside any assump­tions about national identity.


This hard­cover pub­li­ca­tion of Takao Tanabe’s works on paper, beau­ti­fully illus­trated in colour with over 60 of the artist’s works, is avail­able directly from the Burn­aby Art Gallery. Includes essays by Dar­rin Martens, Ihor Hol­u­bizky and Denise Leclerc. Con­tact info@burnabyartgallery.ca to order a copy.


  1. Author’s note: Mural exhib­ited at the Ottawa Art Gallery from 10 Sept. to 13 Nov. 2011in Takao Tan­abe: The Sea­sons, dis­man­tled in 2011 []
  2. Takao Tan­abe cited in “Artist Finds It’s as Tough to Live in Europe as Here,” Mon­tréal Gazette (6 Dec. 1955) []
  3. Takao Tan­abe: My Life and My Art, pod­cast (25 Apr. 2010) Friends of Banff National Park, accessed 22 Oct. 2011, http://www.friendsofbanff.com/park-radio/podcast/takao-tanabe-my-life-andmy-art/ []
  4. Dany Lafer­riere, I Am a Japan­ese Writer (Mon­tréal: Boréal, 2008 []